Published  19/04/2016

Lucy Jones: ‘My work is not slick and I struggle to resolve my paintings’

Lucy Jones: ‘My work is not slick and I struggle to resolve my paintings’

The artist talks about her recent return to making portraits of others, and explains what she sees as a balancing act between the tools that go to make up the language of a painting


Perhaps better known for her self-portraits, addressing ideas of femininity, ageing and disability, Lucy Jones (b1955) has recently returned to painting portraits of others: a close friend, her husband and her father. These portraits, as well as a number of her lush and colourful landscapes, represent the Circle of Life in her latest exhibition at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street.

Jones spoke to Studio International about the compulsion to make art, the importance of her cerebral palsy and dyslexia, and what she looks to capture in a portrait.

Anna McNay: You are particularly known for your self-portraits, but for your exhibition at Flowers, you have returned, for the first time in many years, to painting portraits of others. What made you do this?

Lucy Jones: Roger Partridge [a close friend and sculptor] and Joan [his wife] asked me to do this portrait of him. They knew he did not have much more time to live. [Partridge died last year.] I was apprehensive, as I had not done portraits of other people for some time. We had known each other in Rome, as we both won the Rome scholarship. It felt poignant and right for me to do this portrait as part of Roger’s work has been about exploring his struggle with cancer and I could see a connection to my work. It was also a huge endorsement of my work as an artist.

AMc: You have described before how, when you were painting models at art school, you realised that you were still actually seeing and painting yourself. Do you still find this today? Are your portraits of other people on some level still portraits of yourself?

LJ: I see these few portraits as very different. I think I was overstating the issue of “actually being portraits of myself”. When I was painting from the model at the Royal College of Art, I was able to have the model exactly how I wanted and the people who I painted became friends.

At the time, I had only done two self-portraits, but these stuck in my mind and I felt I could explore human frailties through self-portraits better than through portraits of other people. I was certainly aware of people’s projections on to me and this is something I was not going to do to others – but I could explore these ideas through using myself.

AMc: When you are painting a portrait of someone else, what are the key elements you are hoping to capture? Do you seek an internal or external likeness?

LJ: So far I have done three portraits of other people. However, these are not just other people, they are very particular: Roger (friend), Father and Husband – they could not be more personal and I have strived to get the essence of them.

AMc: Does having a close relationship with the sitter make it easier or more difficult to paint their portrait?

LJ: Without doubt, knowing the sitter makes a huge difference. You observe how they are within themselves, how they live in their bodies, how they sit.

AMc: Do you paint from life or do you use photographs?

LJ: Normally, I do not use photographs but these three portraits were of people who could not possibly sit for me for the period of time I needed. I do not take the photos myself but carefully direct exactly what is needed. I paint myself in the mirror. This is the way one sees oneself and it does not sit comfortably working on self-portraits from photographs.

AMc: How long does a portrait typically take you to complete?

LJ: This question is like asking: “How long is a piece of string?” They can take weeks or months.

AMc: Alongside these portraits, you also paint landscapes – a number of which are to be included in the exhibition. Do you see these as two separate strands to your practice, or do they feed one into the other?

LJ: They feed into one another to a point. I am not the only artist who goes from one to the other; Hockney is another, to name but one.

AMc: The title of the exhibition is The Cycle of Life. Does this hold equally for the landscapes as well as for the portraits?

LJ: I chose this title carefully. It is a difficult exhibition to explain as it does hold together the different strands of my work. “The Cycle of Life” encompasses beginning and end, for both landscape and people.

AMc: How much of an impact does your cerebral palsy have on your work – both in terms of your image and understanding of yourself, but also any physical constraints?

LJ: If I did not have cerebral palsy and dyslexia, I would not have explored the ideas I have – they both play a part. As for physical constraint, I can only say I think they have added to my painting, making my work direct – my work is not slick and I struggle to resolve my paintings.

AMc: Your colour scheme is vivid and beautiful. Where does your palette come from? Are there certain colours you couldn’t do without?

LJ: My colours come from trying to balance out the painting, to use the colour to make the space in my paintings. Well, it would be difficult to paint without green.

AMc: You’ve written before about being able to choose what elements to use to make a painting, selecting from line, colour, light, tone, paint-marks, etc. What elements do you choose and why?

LJ: Line, colour, light, tone, paint-marks, etc. All these elements go into making a painting. It is a balancing act between these tools that go to make up the language of a painting. The reason why we can tell the difference between Picasso and Matisse is that Picasso is a more linear artist, even when they were working in a very similar way. I prefer the word language to style as it is like a perfectly fitting skin, which makes that artist unique.

AMc: You paint your landscapes in the studio after making sketches en plein air. How do you select the scenes you wish to paint? Are they faithful copies?

LJ: I do drawings en plein air. These are hard won and are about me learning about what I am looking at, building up a memory, and they are far from a faithful copy. They take some time to do and are a piece of work in themselves.

AMc: Do you go out in all seasons and all weathers?

LJ: No. I used to, but now, when it is very cold and wet, I am a little feeble.

AMc: How important are the titles of your work?

LJ: My titles have become increasingly important, tongue in cheek and looking at things sideways.

AMc: You have said before that you have often felt angry about being a painter because you have felt trapped and stifled. Is this still the case?

LJ: This has changed over the past 10 years. I now find my studio space on the whole a nice place to be. It is like having a room of one’s own. However, one can have too much of a good thing and I need to get away. By the time I get to another exhibition, my capacity to keep on going is running thin. It is a balancing act. If you get interrupted too much, you lose continuity; if not enough, you feel trapped.

AMc: Where does your motivation to continue painting come from?

LJ: It is what I am. Like it or hate it I am stuck with it.

• Lucy Jones: The Cycle of Life is on show at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London, 20 April to 21 May 2016.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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